Week 12 – A Cross-Cultural Update

I am over half-way done with my trip to Japan and it is both exactly what I expected and not what I expected at all… so figure that one out.

I know that this entire blog has been dedicated to me venting all of my thoughts on this once-in-a-lifetime experience here in Japan. This isn’t gonna be that different and, in fact, is more of a digestive of how I have specifically adapted to this new culture. So let’s track this from the beginning.

Going into this trip, I constantly looked at everything through the lens of a four-phase structure. The four phases of inter-cultural communication, as I learned them in my mandatory seminar course back in the US before coming here, which helped a lot. (shoutout to Professor Mara Berkland at North Central College)

The first stage is one of wonder and euphoria at the culture around you. It is the same stage most tourists enter and stay in the duration of their experience in a foreign country. The logic being that their experience there is purely temporary and so they don’t have to stress over any conflicts with the culture if any arise in their time abroad.

For those staying a prolonged period of time, the second stage is far more likely. This stage is categorized by extreme conflict with the culture. When I say conflict, it can mean a lot of things, but consider what you would be most anxious about when in a foreign country. Maybe it is the language barrier and your own abilities with the country’s language. Perhaps it is the thought of crossing certain boundaries and offending your hosts. It can be a lot of things, but this conflict will happen in this stage.

The third and fourth phases are not all that different, for they both are related to the adapting to the host culture. The key difference being that the former phase is where the adapting is happening and the latter is where it has reached completion. One could think of stage four as feeling at home in the host country.

Given the person that I am, I was convinced that phase two would be the biggest hurdle to cross in this trip. The duration of which I would remain in that phase was something that ate at me leading up to the day of my departure. The day before I left, I pondered when everything would hit me. Would it be that night? The morning I left? Would it be weeks later? Turns out it happened the night I arrived at the dorm in Nagoya.

Now, I suppose the twist to this story is that my experience and the four phases ran in very different directions. I would say that the biggest emotional hurdles came at the very start and only got easier with time, and rather quickly at that. It was actually kind of a pleasant surprise all things considered. But why? What about my experience made this divergence happen?

I’ve narrowed it down to three components: culture, language, and personal preparedness.

Culture

Read anything about travelling abroad and you will hear about culture shock. It is the conflict coinciding with one culture’s practices running contrary to your own. In preparing for my journey, I suppose I just left myself open to the possibility that I would experience some form of culture shock. But… I really haven’t

Thinking back, I prepared myself for the possibility because I am a very nervous person when it comes to big changes. It was only natural I prepared for the unexpected. That being said, it is kinda funny that I thought I would arrive in Japan and at some point just have my world shaken by some cultural practice when 80% of my consumed media seems to come from there.

I don’t want to make it sound like anime is ample preparedness for going to Japan, it isn’t and plenty of people have experienced culture shock thinking that way. No, I say this because through the interest in Japan gathered through their media, I attained a lot of info that gave me a fairly solid idea of that culture.

I’m still learning new things obviously, and on the topic of culture shock, I would say that if I were coming to Japan as a tourist I might,t have a relatively easy time. I say this because it seems as though a lot of Japanese culture is either accommodating of English speakers or streamlines processes to avoid human interaction.

That, in fact, leads me to one aspect in which some conflict could be found.

Language

I’ve been studying Japanese for about three years now. In all that time, I’ve learned some pretty useful stuff, but I would never presume to call myself fluent. A lot of people go to Japan expecting that by the end of the trip they will come back fluent, but I can tell you right now that will not happen.

As I said above, there isn’t a ton of communication that occurs in day to day life. This is due to factors both circumstantial and cultural. Culturally, my statement about streamlining applies. Circumstantially, I live in a dorm with friends who are mostly Americans and Canadians and for a time I didn’t have a lot of Japanese friends I was talking to repeatedly.

So into the second month here, I started having moments in class where I was frustrated and doubting my ability to speak the language. I was pushing myself to explain what I was thinking, but I couldn’t find the right words. Moments like that are when I begin to really feel the conflict with the culture and when I start doubting myself, wondering why I’m even here.

Of course, that was a more minor moment in the grand scheme of things. I still feel some frustration now and again, and even some degree of impatience in a lot of classes, but I learned to not let it get to me. Beyond the classroom environment, I started meeting with my tutor weekly for lunch, giving me the opportunity to speak in Japanese more casually.

Could I do more? Absolutely, and I’d like to push myself more in these final weeks to talk to more Japanese students and Japanese people in general. With my travel plans taking me to Tokyo towards the end of the month, I’m hoping to get more chances to flex my bilingual muscles.

Who I Am

The final component contributing to my pleasant experience thus far is likely the biggest one. I’ve said before that I am a nervous person. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I spent the first night in Japan teary-eyed, texting friends to tell them I love and miss them.

Not only is this my first time in a foreign country- not only is this my first time travelling alone, but this is my first time living in a dorm. I ripped off like three bandaids all at once. I’m still a little shocked that I decided one day to walk up to my parents and say “hey I wanna study abroad in Japan.” That is not like me AT ALL.

But here I am. If I had to compare my experience with those four phases, I would say I started square into the second phase. Nervous, scared, and desperate to make friends. But because I prepared how I did and found held the way I did, it could only go up from there.

And the euphoria of the first phase hasn’t been lost on me. Every trip to a big park or major town fills me with a sense of wonder that I have never felt. It has simply been tempered by those rough first couple weeks when I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through. So its as if I jumped right to the second phase, then back to one, and am currently coasting through the third phase.

It is hard to say whether or not this place will truly feel like home by the time I leave. The homesickness is this there and arguably has gotten stronger as time has gone on. However, it is accompanied by this feeling that I’ll be alright until the time comes to return home. So until then, it’s best to enjoy it while it lasts.

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